ST. PETERSBURG — Ruth Williams built a one-woman mission on the shoulders of grief. A few days before Christmas 1964, her 16-year-old son, Alexander, was killed while trying to break up a fight.
Several months later, Mrs. Williams — "Mama Ruth" to scores of young people and adults who knew her — launched a club for teenagers in her Jordan Park neighborhood. The Jordan Park Teen-Age Club would inject her community with hope, taking teenagers on field trips around the state.
Mrs. Williams, who fed children at her home whenever they were hungry and represented them in school, died Sunday. She was 87.
Even before the tragedy, Mrs. Williams had been concerned about a once-thriving black community that she felt had fallen into disrepair, particularly in the area where her son, nicknamed "Boo," died.
They called it "Chubby's Corner," after a convenience store at 22nd Street and Ninth Avenue S. Boo Williams, a good student at Gibbs High School and a rising basketball star, was among the crowd when a fight broke out between another boy and Boo's brother Sammy.
That much Mrs. Williams saw from her car. As she approached, a shot rang out. The victim was Boo, who was shot in the back. Mrs. Williams reached her son's side just in time to see him die.
"It was devastating to us," said son Ralph Williams, 55. "He was like the superstar in our family."
In the fall of 1965, managers of the Jordan Park housing project formed the Jordan Park Teen-Age Club. Mrs. Williams became its counselor, or leader.
Children had to pay dues of 15 cents a week. They met on Friday nights and held cookouts and other fundraisers on Saturdays, selling fried fish or candied apples.
They took Greyhound buses to see the Gibbs Gladiators play football and basketball on a segregated circuit, traveling to other black schools.
"It was nothing for us to have three or four chartered buses and head to Ocala, Jacksonville, Miami, Arcadia," said former club member Rhonda Jackson, 59, who said Mrs. Williams was her godmother.
Jackson's husband, city recreation manager Thomas "Jet" Jackson, was too old to be in the club at the time, but he helped Mama Ruth provide leadership.
"She just loved people, whether they were teenagers or a little child or an adult," said Thomas Jackson, 66. "She worked … to show kids there were other things in life than just hanging around together."
The fundraisers and the trips kept the teens connected with each other and aligned with the next goal. She demanded that they keep their grades up to go on the field trips and also fined them for swearing.
"All of the kids had a sense of purpose," said Diane Williams, 54, wife to Ralph.
Mama Ruth intervened between troubled teenagers and school officials and had jailed members released to her custody simply by telling deputies, "This is one of my kids, and I've got him."
Mama Ruth knew how it felt to be alone in the world.
She grew up in Jacksonville, the only child of a single mother. Ruth was 10 when her mother died.
Another family not related to her, the Primes, took her in. Their children treated her as a sibling.
"At a very early age, she was left out there on her own," Diane Williams said. "I think that led to her wanting to make sure that no other kids out there felt that way or had that experience.
"Other people related because whenever someone else in the community experienced something, they would always go to her," Diane Williams said. "They knew they would get some kind of consolation because they figured, 'Hey, she's been through it, so this woman knows what she's talking about.' "
This week, people who were teenagers 40 years ago are talking about the things she taught them, such as how to act during a job interview, the importance of looking people in the eye.
"Those kind of things, sometimes you don't realize how much they map out your life," said Catherine Washington, a recently retired firefighter and paramedic for the St. Petersburg Fire and Rescue Department. In 1999, the city made Washington its Firefighter of the Year. She credits Mama Ruth for getting her off to a good start.
"I learned that if I wanted to do something other than what I had done, I could do it," she said.